Elena Studier’s 38-day trip will highlight the importance of integrated, multi-modal transportation.
INWOOD, N.Y., 9:30 a.m. — At the corner of Broadway and Dyckman Street at the northern tip of Manhattan, Elena Studier is doing some final checks on her bike. She scans to make sure there’s air in the tires and that the brakes are working. Her backpack, a giant green Opsrey, is packed with the bare minimum. For the next 38 days, she’ll be traversing the country using only a bike (hers is named Stevie) and Amtrak, making 18 stops in various cities along the way.
The ten-mile ride down the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway from Inwood to Penn Station is just the first leg of her trip. I’m tagging along with representatives from Amtrak and the East Coast Greenway Alliance—an organization working to connect the major cities along the eastern seaboard by bike paths—to see her off. We cycle away from the sleepy streets of weekend-morning Inwood and over to the Hudson. The air is cool and salty; to our right, across the river, are quiet, wooded cliffs; to the left, the Metro-North Hudson line tracks.
It’s hard to believe this bucolic stretch of is part of jam-packed Manhattan; that after an hour’s ride we’ll be in the midst of Midtown, navigating our bikes through crowds of tourists toward the Amtrak waiting area in Penn Station. But integrating these diverse transit experiences is the point of Studier’s trip.
As an intern for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, whose aim is to boost the interconnectivity and ridership of the U.S. railways, Studier devised this journey to demonstrate the possibility of crossing the country without the use of a car. Throughout the course of her Summer by Rail, which officially began May 15 and will conclude in Washington D.C.’s Union Station on June 20th, Studier will track between cities along the outer edge of the country, speaking with local transit developers, advocacy groups, and Amtrak passengers to document the need for integrated, accessible public transportation in places as small as Bloomington-Normal, Illinois and as large as the Bay Area.
“This is a lifestyle that many more people are gravitating toward,” Studier says. “It’s becoming more important for people to feel like they can get by in the modern world without necessarily having a car, but [by] relying instead on public transportation—and transportation in general—that’s really integrated and manages to serve a variety of needs,” she adds.
The expansion of Amtrak’s walk-on bike service last year has aided the accessibility of railroad travel. First introduced in 2013, the wildly convenient alternative to the rail system’s bike-box policy has since expanded to 10 lines; the Capitol Limited became the first overnight train to offer the roll-on service last September. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Melody Geraci, the deputy executive director at the Active Transportation Alliance, said that as a result of the service, “more people are interested in making inter-modal connections without having to worry about driving and parking a car.”
It’s those extra miles between an Amtrak stop and a city’s public transportation system, Studier says, that often mar the convenience of multi-city rail travel. Incorporating a bike as connective tissue certainly helps. “Rail travel has a tendency in the public discourse to be seen as nostalgic,” Studier says. “I wanted to show that it’s actually a very current, and needed, system.”
And yet, there’s room for improvement. On its website, the NARP says it “believes the current Amtrak system is skeletal at best.” Its goal is to increase the number of rail route miles from 22,000 to 45,000—roughly flush with the size of the current interstate highway system—and put 80 percent of the population within 25 miles of a train station by 2025. In a recent report, the NARP calculated $209 billion worth of languishing rail improvement projectsacross the country. In addition to boosting mobility for underserved populations (parts of rural Wyoming and South Dakota are still completely inaccessible by rail), the completion of those projects would jolt some life into the economy—the NARP estimates that 20,000 jobs are created for each billion spent on rail projects.
Studier’s trip will bring her face-to-face with how these abstract figures play out on the local scale. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Studier will document the effects of the multi-billion dollar Green Line project, completed in 2014, but she’ll also consult with the Adventure Cycling Association and the Whitefish Visitor’s Bureau in Glacier National Park to understand the importance of integrated transit systems for smaller, more remote towns. “In a place like Whitefish, a few hundred thousand dollars of intrastructure investment can make a huge difference,” says Sean Jeans-Gail, the vice president of NARP. “[Towns like Whitefish] really want to get people out there on their bikes by train, because it’s an important economic lifeline for them.” By stitching together these different stories about transit systems across the country, Studier’s project will become a tangible study in the need for cities and town across the country to consider the future of their transit systems on both a national and a local scale.
“Interconnectivity is a message that people all across the country are really prioritizing; it’s something you’re starting to see in plans and developments,” Studier says. “I’m just hoping to amplify it.”